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16 Mar, 2013 09:25

US admits Gitmo hunger strike spreading

The US Military said Friday that 14 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay prison can be defined as hunger strikers, five more than they had previously reported. Lawyers have said that more than 100 inmates are taking part in the five-week-long protest.

One of the strikers was taken to the prison hospital, Guantanamo detention center spokesperson Navy Capt. Robert Durand said Friday. Five others are being fed through tubes put through their noses into their stomachs, while eight others are not yet sufficiently malnourished to merit such treatment, he said.

Durand denied that the hunger strike is “a widespread phenomenon, as alleged,” by the captives’ lawyers, and blamed them of spreading “outright falsehoods and gross exaggerations.” He downplayed the reports of a mass strike at Gitmo, saying that most of the alleged strikers are skipping regular meals, but substituting them with snacks.

“Refusing prepared meals and choosing to subsist for a time on snack foods does not constitute a hunger strike,” Durand said.

Earlier, layers said most of the 130 prisoners held at Camp 6, where the majority of Gitmo’s 166 prisoners are incarcerated, are taking part in a hunger strike. Fifty-one attorneys wrote Thursday to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel calling on him to intervene.

The huge disparity in the numbers of strikers reported by Guantanamo staff and by the lawyers is explainable by the fact that the definition of a hunger striker is in the hand of authorities, said Pardiss Kebriaei from the Center Constitutional Rights, one of the complainant lawyers.

“Our understanding is that based on previous standards the determination of who is a hunger striker is a discretionary determination that the Guantanamo makes,” she told RT. “If the definition of a hunger striker is entirely in their control and is a matter of their discretion, then I think that explains how they are able to say that there are no more than a handful of men on hunger strike.”

A guard walks through a cellblock inside Camp V, a prison used to house detainees at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base.(Reuters / Bob Strong)

Tensions in the notorious prison, where the US detains terror suspects, apparently started last month after a new rotation of US Army soldiers took over guard duties from a Navy force. Some prisoners complained to their layers of aggressive searches, which included confiscations of personal items and handling of Korans that the inmates found sacrilegious, as most are devout Muslims.

Durand confirmed the reports that some of the detainees had their Korans taken from them, but called it an attempt at manipulation: “If we accept their Koran, it would be portrayed as either an admission that it required protection and safekeeping, or as a confiscation by the guard force, depriving them of the religious articles needed to practice their faith.”

He also insisted that all searches are conducted in a regular way, and that no mistreatment of Muslim holy books has taking place at Gitmo.

“I am not clear if the spokesperson for Guantanamo understands exactly what the problem is here. ‘Mishandling’ does not mean burning the book or ripping out pages. It means touching the Koran and searching the Koran by their jailers,” Kebriaei said.

The US facility at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay is among the darkest legacies of the post-9/11 'War on Terror.' Many detainees there are being held in legal limbo without trial. Half of the prisoners have been cleared for release, but still remain in custody.

The scarcity of information about the development is partially due to the secrecy maintained by the prison. The communication barriers in place have been an obstacle for human rights organizations for years, Rob Freer of Amnesty International told RT.

“We have to wait until a detainee is released, before we can speak to them. This leads to underreporting on individual detainee cases and at least to a time lag. The lawyers themselves are not there the whole time and it requires declassification of certain information when they do get to,” he said.

President Barack Obama promised to shut down the notorious prison at the start of his first term in office, but failed to deliver.